A year ago, Hurtis Chinn had a decision to make: stay put as the Iowa Barnstormers’ receivers coach, roll the dice and become a head coach somewhere else — or move to Tucson.
Marcus Coleman, then Chinn’s colleague with the Barnstormers, had just been hired to coach the expansion Tucson Sugar Skulls. Chinn was the first person Coleman called to be a part of his staff. The two won the Indoor Football League United Bowl together; why not try it again in Tucson?
“For me, I had two head coaching jobs offered to me,” Chinn said. “Then we had another conversation like, ‘This is what we have in Tucson, would you like to be a part of this? I know you’re going to look at your other situations first,’ which I did.
“Looking back, would I change it? No. I feel completely good about it. I don’t regret anything from that conversation at all. Actually it’s been all smiles along the bumps. Throughout the ups and downs, it’s been all smiles for me. … There’s no regret and it’s been a good journey so far.”
Tucson is fortunate to have him. With Chinn in charge, the Sugar Skulls — who play their first-ever postseason game on Sunday — have put together one of the top offenses in the IFL. Tucson averaged 264.2 yards per game during the regular season, a figure that ranks fourth in the IFL. In a pass-happy league, the Sugar Skulls ranked second with 105.5 rushing yards per game.
Chinn spent six seasons with the Nebraska Danger, the final year as head coach, before moving on to Iowa. At each stop, Chinn has looked for inspiration.
His longtime friend, former NFL defensive back Brandon Meriweather, has been a good sounding board. Chinn often asked Meriweather how icons like six-time Super Bowl champion Bill Belichick operated.
“I asked him about how Belichick would approach certain situations on a week-to-week basis and from there, I just kind of came into my own,” Chinn said.
Chinn eventually developed what he calls the “Everybody Eats” offense. The Sugar Skulls’ playbook is thin, but wrinkles are thrown in every week based on the opponent.
“‘Everybody Eats’ means no one man is bigger than the team,” Chinn said. “Everyone will get their turn to get something on the stat sheet. Your touchdown might come in the fourth quarter, mine will come in the first drive.
“It’s effective, and who is effective? It depends on the day. Our philosophy is to score a lot of points and win. We might play a game one week where the run game is working heavily, so our philosophy that week is to run the ball. The next week, their secondary might not be so good, so our philosophy is to throw the ball. Our philosophy is week-to-week.”
Take last week’s win over the Quad City Steamwheelers. Wide receiver Rico Brown extended his touchdown reception streak to eight games, while Mike Jones rushed for a season-high 116 yards and three touchdowns. A week earlier, three different wide receivers had touchdown catches.
Five different Tucson players have scored a rushing touchdown this season, and nine different players have caught a touchdown pass. Every Tucson receiver has scored at least once.
“The way that it’s built, it’s not just for one person. You have to be in unison when you’re doing it,” Coleman said. “Everyone is going to get a shot at the rock depending on who we’re playing. You may get the ball five times one week and then two times the other week depending on what we’re seeing. If everyone focuses on their responsibility, everybody gets a chance to eat. There’s not one guy that will walk out of here without two or three catches a game.”
Jones calls Chinn “an offensive genius.”
“When you’re in the film room with him, he breaks down every opponent and every defense,” Jones said. “The dude has 100 plays in his head that we know we can run and beat them on any coverage they give us. The dude is just a genius when it comes to picking plays.”
“Everybody Eats” applies to the quarterbacks, too. Jake Medlock and Matt Behrendt have shared time at the position, with Medlock as the primary starter before he suffered a toe injury two weeks ago against the Arizona Rattlers. Medlock was active for last week’s playoff-clinching win, but it was Behrendt who played and completed 8 of 11 passes in his first start since April 6.
While there can only be one quarterback on the field, there’s no bad blood between the two.
“To see them off the field is a beautiful thing,” Chinn said. “They genuinely get along and they genuinely have each other’s backs. They are genuinely concerned about each other and they both understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. There’s no cross between the two and for me, whoever is doing the best and feeling the best, that’s who we’ll roll with.”
Whoever is the quarterback for Tucson will have a tall task Sunday, when the Sugar Skulls take on the third-seeded Sioux Falls Storm in South Dakota. Win, and the Sugar Skulls will take on the Rattlers in Glendale with a chance to advance to the United Bowl. It would be unprecedented for an expansion team.
“It takes a lot of courage to come and start something new,” Coleman said. “It’s easy to go somewhere established and (Chinn) could’ve very well taken another (offensive coordinator) job. It means a lot to me that he decided to come.”